Of course Annie Dillard is a poet; I can hear it in her prose. She wrote lyrical sentences, making ample use of assonance and consonance as though she intended her essays to be read aloud. “Pale moths seeking mates massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.” “He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert.” She wrote music without a staff while coaxing the English language into pleasing arrangements of rhythm and sound. “His journal is tracks in clay, a spray of feathers, mouse blood and bone: uncollected, unconnected, loose-leaf, and blown.”
In the three selections of hers that I read (“The Death of a Moth,” “Living Like Weasels,” and “Singing with the Fundamentalists”) she followed one of Strunk and White’s golden rules of writing: “use definite, specific, concrete language.” It’s hard to express how soothing the vision of a university professor’s “long, old ear” is or how satisfying the picture of a weasel that “would have made a good arrowhead.” I guess some people might think I’m funny because of that. Maybe it is funny. But I get so sick of empty abstractions that have gone bald from overuse that I want – I need – something to hold onto. Something fleshy, something pointy. Something sensational.
I want sweat, I want dirt, I want smoky smells and candle wax. I want moth heads spattering in fire; I want virgins facing death on a crackling pyre. All on a stage lit by saffron-yellow lights, with muddy shadows dancing eerily on the curtains.
Dillard supplied my want.
I didn’t know a moth’s death scene could furnish such a sensation. In “The Death of a Moth” Dillard takes a disgusting phenomenon and transforms it into a metaphor of power and brilliance. It truly is a “Transfiguration in a Candle Flame.” She uses radiant, rich vocabulary to describe the scene and create a mood of awe that haunts readers. Golden, flamed, frazzled, tissue paper, moving, circle of light, blue, green, red, fine, foul smoke, glowing, gold, moth-essence, spectacular, burning, soaking, flame, saffron-yellow, immolating, winding flames, light, fire, glowing, fire, hollow saint, flame-faced, light, kindled – notice how she repeats the themes of gold, light, and flame, reminding readers of a pagan ritual, of a holy sacrifice to the gods. Although a scorched insect doesn’t normally conjure up lofty thoughts, Dillard’s moth does because of the author’s skillful wording.
Dillard contrasts her striking moth with the miserable carcasses scattered under the spider’s web behind her toilet. For those creatures she manufactures an ugly mood – drab, mess, corpses, husks, hollow, sipped empty of color, wingless, flake, carcasses, crinkled, clenched, blind, blundering, hazard, mouth on gut, sticky tangle, shines darkly, gleams, smooth, shrunk, gray, webbed to the floor, dust, curled, empty, fragile, brittle fluff, translucent, ragged, drying in knots, stagger, headless, confusion, peeling varnish, jumble, reduced to a nub. Instead of taking her readers to the temple of the gods, she takes them to the Little Shop of Horrors.
In both illustrations, Dillard characterizes two kinds of people: those who live, die, and fade away in insignificance and those who live with strength, make the world take notice, and die in splendor. Dillard does not want to live like the masses do – like bugs behind the toilet. They will be forgotten – “Next week, if the other bodies are any indication, [they’ll] be shrunk and gray, webbed to the floor with dust.” She wants to live with luster.
Dillard’s essay challenges Virginia Woolf’s essay of a similar title: “The Death of the Moth.” A generation earlier, Woolf had also witnessed a moth meet its end, but her response to it differed from Dillard’s. The hay-colored moth on Woolf’s windowsill faded helplessly under the crush of death, but Dillard’s golden moth literally goes out (pardon the cliché) in a blaze of glory. Woolf stressed temporality; Dillard stresses memorability. Woolf’s moth was serene and prostrate; Dillard’s is crackling, blazing, and erect. Dillard saw death differently than Woolf – instead of quietly succumbing to the inevitability of death, Dillard wants to stand out and leave her mark on history, strong to the end.
At the end of “The Death of a Moth,” Dillard says, “Sometimes I think it is pretty funny that I sleep alone.” She must have identified with the moth, a singular beacon shining in the wax. Though alone, she kindled a fire of her own (and still does to this day) by leaving her stories, essays, and poems behind like signal fires for future generations of writers and readers.